Friday, July 31, 2009

The beginning of the end for Texas banding

It has all come down to this, Week 10 of the 10-period banding season in Texas! Today was our first day of the 10th period. A slow start because of thunderstorms yesterday morning. Followed by more thunderstorms this afternoon and hopefully not any more this week. I've scheduled myself to hit the road by next Thursday night so I'm hoping everything can be wrapped up by then.

Back to the last period, Phase 9, we had quite a bit more success than the week before. We ended the week with a 15-bird day, which is pretty decent. Including one CRAZY "net-run." We typically check our nets for any birdies every 40 minutes and it's one person per five nets. Usually I can handle that. But at 6:40 I went to check the nets and I had a bird in every net except one which only had 2 fat cicadas which I also had to extract. I was extracting my fifth bird on my fifth net, and another bird flew right in. Total of 6 birds in one net check. I ran out of birdy bags to transport the birds back so I just held on to the poor little wren. So I ended up with a Carolina Wren, 3 Cardinals (including 2 juveniles), a Mourning Dove and a Bewick's Wren. I was pretty exhausted after extracting all those birds! At least it made for a fun day.

In contrast, today was mostly dull since we were at our slowest site. I spent most of the time reading a new book that was a gift from my aunt Leslie (Thanks Leslie!), Life List by Olivia Gentile. The book is a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, a record-holding life lister, meaning she had seen and kept records of over 6,000 birds in her lifetime. So far it is an interesting read about a woman who begins birding as a hobby to escape her life as a 1960's housewife. But after being diagnosed with melanoma, her time is cut short. She vows to spend her remaining days birding all over the world with help from an inheritance after her wealthy father's death.
Today when I got to extract a bird that looked like a mysterious warbler I couldn't immediately identify, I definitely felt a rush of excitement. And I can see how identifying birds can turn from passion to obsession and fanatacism. According to the biography, Phoebe Snetsinger definitely crossed that line. It came to a point where she was rarely ever at home with her family and she was putting herself in very dangerous situations just to see birds. For instance, she was raped and almost killed during a trip to Papua New Guinea.

I can see why she would pursue a hobby so much, since she was given a short time to live and she didn't have any other outlet or career, but I wouldn't choose it for myself. I have to wonder if she would have enjoyed banding though. I find it much more rewarding than just birding, since you are doing something to help monitor bird populations rather than just trying to see them.

Also, I have to note, it is not always very helpful for birds when birders get excited about seeing a rare bird. Birders will flock to the rare bird's location and may disrupt it or call attention to predators. Most birders, of course know that there is a birders' code of ethics though, and they know not to harrass birds or have an overabundance of people trying to view an endangered species.

Although I'm not a fanatic, I do absolutely love watching birds and seeing a new species I have never seen before. I have already seen several new ones this summer including the Worm-eating Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Green Jay and Olive Sparrow- just to name some of my favorites! I have some kind of life list but it is very casual and I'm sure it has huge holes in it from birds I have seen in Costa Rica, Florida and Arizona, my checklists and notes are somewhere at my parents' house. Anyway I have been using a great website,, that allows you to list all your birds and where and when you've seen them. My list just has some of what I have seen but doesn't go into detail. So far my number is 332! If you use the site, my username is SongbirdSpiffy if you care to track what my favorite birds are or whatever!

Wow, this has been a wordy post so I'm sure you're looking for the birdy part of it. Remember I said something about a mysterious warbler that I got to extract today? Ah yes my favorite part of today, aside from being out for 12 hours, 2 hours of taking down net poles, another flat tire etc.
Well here is the lovely warbler. Like pretty much every bird we've been getting lately, she was molting like crazy too. All the more helpful for people trying to identify it (not quite).
Despite having no clue while extracting this bird, it was fairly easy to identify once I brought it back to our banding station. Blueish color with white wingbars? Incomplete eyering? Yellow breast with a reddish bar? Yellow lower mandible? Yellow feet and black legs? All fieldmarks for the Northern Parula.

Northern Parula

OK, I have words and birds, so next time I update I promise whims aplenty.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How to age a PABU!

PABU (we pronounce it pah-boo) being short for Painted Bunting of course. All birds have official four letter codes like PABU, and bird banders end up memorizing lots of them and using them in place of the bird's actual common name. Like MODO instead of Mourning Dove and HOFI instead of House Finch. Sometimes the four letter code is just more fun to say! Just a little bird nerd tidbit for you.

In general, when it comes to age and sex, birds can be rather difficult. The best way of knowing for sure what a bird's sex is, is by getting a DNA sample. And the best way to determine age is if you capture a bird when it's born and then recapture it in successive years. But when it comes to Painted Buntings, there are a lot of clues that you can look for. For instance, we know the above picture is an adult male. In the bird world, it's typical for males to be bold and bright.

And we know for sure this picture above is a female Painted Bunting. Or is it? Males in their second year of life actually look a lot like the females. They don't molt into their full breeding plumage until their third year!
The best way to tell apart a second year male or female Painted Bunting is to look at its nether regions. The male will typically have a swollen "cloacal protuberance" during the breeding season. In Pabu's, females are the only ones that develop a brood patch, a loss of feathers on the breast and expansion of blood vessels in contact with the eggs during incubation. Sex can be determined in lots of other birds this way, while others don't even give such obvious physical clues that they are breeding.
For even more fun ways to determine age in a Painted Bunting, meet the PABU family...!

We happened to catch a male, female, and baby all around the same time a few days ago. I'm sure you can tell them apart.

This is the smallest babiest of baby buntings!! It doesn't get much fresher from the nest than this. This baby is still growing in all his feathers and doesn't even have a tail yet! Of course, the first thing he does is fly into one of our nets. But his mom was close by his side and they both flew away together just fine.
And now a little bit about bird wings. If you really want to know your stuff about how to tell the age of a bird in hand, feel free to buy a Pyle guide. If you don't want to spend the money though I'll give a little introduction. Bird wings can be great for telling the age of the bird since a lot of birds follow a specific pattern in how and when they molt their wing feathers. For PABUs, we look at the coloration on their feathers since it varies by age. Look at the differences in the below picture.

All painted buntings are born with brownish gray wing feathers. Over time, the females grow in all green-edged flight feathers and the males get bright green and red feathers. Birds in their second year keep some of their old baby feathers while they are growing adult feathers.

The more accurately we are able to determine age in birds gives us more information on just how long wild birds live. So it's good to have these skills. But while it may be relatively easy to do for Painted Buntings, it is a much different story for a lot of other birds! This summer I have definitely learned a lot, but it still takes a lot of training to know your bird molts.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

nighthawk ...dayhawk

The other day I found this very cryptic bird roosting in a tree outside the Camp Bowie security office..

It was a Common Nighthawk! Indeed these birds are quite common, and you can find them all throughout North America, but you rarely ever see them while they are perched on a tree. That is, unless you are always on the look out for bird-shaped silhouettes everywhere you go...

Common Nighthawk

For the most part, these birds are active during the night as you could probably guess. We usually hear them doing their "peent" call right before dawn while we are setting up our mist nets. And they also seem to like to sleep in the road while I'm driving up to our banding sites. (Don't worry they always fly away when they hear the car) Once in awhile we also see and hear them well into the daytime. Then they transform into Common Dayhawks, of course.

If you are enjoying a summer evening, remember to look for the nighthawk's long dark wings with white central spots. Or listen for the nasal "peent peent" call coming from the sky. Or I suppose just look out for any bird shaped tree branches during the day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

brownest of little brown birds...

Bewick's Wren

I mentioned last week that we got 10 Bewick's Wrens in one day. But I realized that I have never taken a photo of one! I'm sure they are our 2nd most common species that we catch out here in Brownwood, right after Painted Buntings. We get them at all six of our sites and they just love to fly into the nets. They are tiny, but feisty and a whole lot of fun to extract from a mist net. One time, I had one go completely through a hole in the net (the holes are tiny half-inch squares) and was only caught by his little foot. I'm still not really sure how that happened!

Here is the little Bewick's Wren in all his glory. They look similar to House Wrens except for the white eyebrow and the black and white tail feathers and they sound remarkably similar to Song Sparrows. I'm sure if there were Song Sparrows singing here I would never be able to tell the difference, but luckily there are thousands of Bewick's Wrens and no Song Sparrows so I never will get them confused!

And now for the brownest of all little brown birds and the new species of the week...

Huh.. I'm sure I'm not the only one that would look at this bird and think "it looks like a sparrow" and then not really know much more than that! When trying to identify bird species, birders usually look for distinguishing features, like Does it have a colored bill? Does it have markings around the eyes or face? Does it have a reddish cap? Wingbars? Spots or streaking on the breast? In this case, this bird really doesn't have any of those markings, so what am I to do?

Well the field guide wasn't especially helpful but we were able to narrow it down based on the pictures and range maps. Then we could refer to the Pyle guide for bird banders. One species had faint white wing bars, black "anchor-shaped" spots on the back and white tips on the outer rectrices (tail feathers).

So our mystery bird must be... a Cassin's Sparrow! Haha, is that what you guessed too? This is the picture in the Sibley field guide :


Cassin's Sparrow

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Phase 7 Summary

Yesterday we finished phase 7 of banding in Brownwood. Since I still haven't gotten my car back, we had to park and walk a couple extra miles to our banding site when the roads got too muddy. But we ended the day with 10 birds and 68 total birds for the phase. And finally at one of our sites this week, we beat our record for # of birds in one day. We got 21 birds (including a Cardinal that escaped from the net) at a site called Stonehouse. Most of those birds were Bewick's Wrens. We had 10 wrens, mostly fledglings. Bewick's Wrens are a little more difficult to age, but usually you can tell the hatch-years by their fresher plumage, dull colors and loosely textured (fluffier) feathers.

Dickcissel juvenile

One of my favorite fledglings this week was a baby Dickcissel. He was still growing in all his juvenile feathers so we had to release him close to where we found him, so he could find his parents.


A funny story is that we caught a few female House Sparrows last summer in Wisconsin, and we sort of guessed that they were Dickcissels at first since we had never caught a House Sparrow before. Sure, there is no question what's a House Sparrow when you see one on a city block, but a bird in the hand can sometimes be deceiving! If you look at the below picture of a female House Sparrow, you can see that they do look a little similar. Oh, the joys of little brown birds..

Female House Sparrow

This week, we got to band our first woodpeckers at Camp Bowie!

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, juvenile

We actually got two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers (mother and juvenile) in the same net at Stonehouse and two again the next day at Mesquite.

This is a juvenile because of the red tipped feathers on the head. The adult male has much more extensive red on the head.

From the back, you can see the woodpecker's pointy tail feathers. These feathers are much stronger and stiffer on woodpeckers than for other birds so they can use them to balance on the side of a tree.

We had another new visitor to the nets this week which was a complete surprise. It was a female black-and-white Warbler! We thought we were completely done banding warblers for the season, but I guess not. For the most part, warblers that we had the chance of seeing only migrate through Texas on their way much further north. But according to the B&W Warbler's range map there is a little spot in central Texas where they breed.

Female Black-and-white Warbler (photo taken during training)

For now, I have a couple days off, but hopefully there will be some more new birds next week!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The season for fledglings...

Lately our capture rates at Camp Bowie had been declining, mostly due to the fact that it has been incredibly hot. When it's hot, the birds are less active and they are also more likely to get heat stress if they are left in the nets too long. But today we began to see a fabulous trend. More birds and more baby birds! Last week our greatest number of captures was 10 in one day, but today we got 12! Yipee.

Painted Bunting juvenile

Above pictured is our first (finally!) baby Painted Bunting. We hardly go a day without catching a bunting, so it was just a matter of time before we got some hatch-year birds. He was very drab and growing in new feathers absolutely everywhere. This usually means that it hasn't been too long since he left the nest and we give these birds the term, local. You can see the fleshy gape on the bill and some feathers growing in on the top of the head. So cute.

Carolina Chickadee juvenile

This was a hatch-year Carolina Chickadee. It has been out of the nest for awhile so all the juvenile feathers are grown in at this point. It's difficult to tell them apart from the adults except that the feathers are in really fresh and in good condition.

OK, maybe he looks a little messy in the pictures, but believe me, most chickadees look much worse. With lots of use, flight feathers (wing and tail) get ragged over time and then are replaced in an orderly sequence when the bird molts.

Northern Cardinal juvenile

In one day, we got one juvenile Painted Bunting, a juvenile Carolina Chickadee, another juvenile Rufous-crowned Sparrow, juvenile Eastern Phoebe, and two Northern Cardinal youngsters. Since they are still testing out their wings, they're more likely to fly into a net than older birds. The cardinals were pretty funny looking. The one pictured had random splotches of red all over, a pretty good sign that he is a male since the females don't get red feathers on the face. The other juvenile cardinal that we got looked very different, without any red splotches on the body feathers and more orange on the bill. Still, a really good sign that you are looking at a young cardinal and not an adult female is a blackish or brownish bill instead of bright orange, and a lack of the black mask on the face.

birdy art update
My latest projects were the Dickcissel

and the Cerulean Warbler (per request of MAPS biologist Tiffany!)

And to my readers, if you ever need a birdy drawing let me know in the comments!